Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Strike Up The Band!

In recent years, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has become as keenly focused on music as it has always been on film. While the festival features a recurring group of musicians, this year artistic director Anita Monga invited Sweden's Matti Bye Ensemble to accompany two films: 1922's Haxan: Witchraft Through The Ages and 1924's rarely-seen L'Heureuse Mort. The festival's website even allows visitors to sort programs by musician!

A new feature during July's 15th anniversary festival was a program in which several of the festival's key accompanists were asked to discuss the process of composing music for silent film. Co-presented by City Arts & Lectures and San Francisco Performances (with special support from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences), the program brought together the following musicians:
Stephen Horne accompanying a silent film
Horne explained some of the musical choices he made when accompanying a scene in Anthony Asquith's 1929 film, A Cottage on Dartmoor, that takes place in a movie theatre where a small orchestra is accompanying a silent film. Dennis James locked curatorial horns with a fellow musician over whether the original scores created for certain films should be regarded as integral to the filmmaker's artistic vision. Most of the participants agreed that there are key dramatic moments in some films where silence actually works best.

At one point, I asked how the panelists felt about rock musicians being commissioned to write scores for silent films. Dennis James explained that the traditional approach to silent film involves finding the most appropriate sounds for the action on the screen. The more contemporary approach features rock musicians who are essentially performing in concert style with the film playing in the background. According to James, one contemporary musician apparently boasted that he was going to position himself so that he couldn't even see the screen while the film was playing!

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival recently presented a screening of E. Mason Hopper's 1922 silent film, Hungry Hearts, accompanied by the Moab Strangers: composer Ethan Miller (Howlin; Rain, Comets On Fire), Matt Baldwin, Utrillo Kushner (Comets On Fire, Colossal Yes), Joel Robinow (Howlin' Rain, Drunk Horse) and a female Gamelan band. The second approach is to hire rock musicians with a popular fan base and encourage them to try their hand at composing a silent film score. The benefits of this arrangement are pretty obvious:
  • A rock musician will sell far more tickets than a pianist or theatre organist.
  • News of a local appearance by a rock musician can often sell out an event (ticket revenue is important to nonprofit film festivals).
  • It's often easier to write a grant or attract a donor who will sponsor new music composed by a contemporary -- and local -- musician.
  • Festival programmers hope that attracting younger audiences to silent film might build a larger audience for future presentations.

Hungry Hearts includes two wonderful moments: one in which we silently watch a Jewish mother kvell onscreen, and the other in which she goes berserk with a meat cleaver and destroys the kitchen in her apartment. Although I doubt the movie will ever be nicknamed "The Secret of Kvells," what started off as a promising musical experience (while the  action took place in a Russian shtetl) soon exploded into a solid wall of noise as the film depicted scenes of immigrant life on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

The bottom line is that if the music commissioned for a silent film does nothing to support the story being shown on screen, then a genuine effort should be made to hire more talented composers -- people who are familiar with silent film as an art form and know what they're doing. And yet, in a bizarre way, the phenomenon of hiring rockers to accompany silent film has been a boon for traditionalists like Dennis James.

In May of 2010 James he was invited to Salzburg to accompany a screening of 1925's The Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney. Prior to his performance, a screening of F.W. Murnau's silent horror flick,  Nosferatu (1922) had been accompanied by Wolfgang Mitterer with a combination of live organ, sampler, and electronic sounds. According to James, the presenters were so disheartened by the screening of Nosferatu that, after he finished accompanying The Phantom of the Opera, they asked James to become the Mozarteum's exclusive accompanist for future silent film events.
Silent film organist Dennis James
Dennis James returns to Salzburg this fall to accompany four programs on the Mozarteum's organ: Faust (1926), Robin Hood (1922), La Boheme (1926), and a program of shorts featuring Charlie Chaplin in The Rink (1916), Buster Keaton in The Paleface (1922), Harold Lloyd in Never Weaken (1921), and Laurel & Hardy in Two Tars (1928). He returns to the San Francisco Symphony on Halloween to accompany the 1920 silent version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring John Barrymore. "Each time a rock musician fails in an attempt to accompany silent film, it means more work for me!" he chuckles.

* * * * * * *
Whereas silent film fans can be purists, Canadian musician and performance artist Josh Dolgin (a/k/a Socalled) embraces all types of music from jazz to hip hop, from klezmer to funk. The subject of a fascinating new documentary by Gary Beitel called The "Socalled" Movie, he is an artist of remarkable breadth and depth.His music video "You Are Never Alone" has received nearly 2.5 million hits on YouTube and is a mind-boggling piece of video art.

Born in Ottawa, Dolgin developed an early love for Bach, Tom Waits, funk, hip hop, and started making beats in his teens. An atheist who is leery of organized religion, he became fascinated by the sounds and breaks he heard on an old recording of Yiddish theatre music.

He soon discovered that integrating Jewish music from the 1930s into his own songs could be a way of showcasing his own music as well as a forgotten, but extremely rich cultural heritage. Dolgin's albums include The Socalled Seder: A HipHop Hagaddah; HipHopKhasene (an updated Jewish wedding album) and Ghettoblaster, which he recorded with the legendary Theodore Bikel.

Based in Montreal, the openly gay Dolgin is a man of many passions who, with his receding hairline, bears an uncanny resemblance to the young Charles Nelson Reilly.  An obsessive collector of music and tchotchkes, he is also an amateur magician who likes to incorporate sleight of hand tricks into some of his performances.

Performance artist Josh "Socalled" Dolgin
More than anything else, Dolgin is a man with an insatiable curiosity. He has performed at "Hip Hop Hanukkah" events, at Harlem's famed Apollo Theatre, written a scandalous rap lyric entitled "Jewfunk," and taught classes in "Hiphopkele" in London. A frequent collaborator who reaches out to musicians from other generations and genres, Josh has worked with:

The "Socalled" Movie follows Dolgin on a trip to Russia as he searches for  his grandfather's musical roots in the Ukraine. Some of the documentary's most charming footage was taken during the first "Klezmer Cruise" (in which a group of klezmer fans joined Dolgin as he sailed down the Dnieper River).

Gary Beitel's documentary is almost as hard to pigeonhole as its charismatic star. Part travelogue, part biopic, it examines how a contemporary musician can find treasures from the past, incorporate them into his own artistic process, and deliver a product of compelling musical and historical appeal. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
While Dolgin was more than happy to travel to Russia, a ragtag group of Russians can't wait to get out of Moscow and escape the clutches of poverty and bureaucracy. Radu Mihaileanu's new dramedy, The Concert, focuses on a band of Russian musicians who have fallen on hard times.

Andrei Filipov (Aleksei Guskov) was once a celebrated conductor of the Bolshoi orchestra who, nearly 30 years ago, fell into disgrace under Leonid Brezhnev's regime for protecting two rebellious Jewish musicians who spoke out against the government. The two Jews were exiled to Siberia. Filipov was demoted to performing janitorial work in the Bolshoi Theatre, where he was once a revered maestro. His wife Irina (Anna Kamenkova) struggles to supplement their income by supplying hired guests for state dinners, political events, and funerals that need extra mourners.

Poster art for The Concert
One day, as Andrei is cleaning a bureaucrat's office, he intercepts a fax from Paris. Apparently, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has had to cancel its tour dates on short notice and Olivier Morne DuPlessis (Francois Berléand), the manager of the Theatre du Chatelet, is desperately hoping to book the Bolshoi's orchestra as a replacement.

Knowing full well that this could be a huge opportunity, Filipov pockets the fax and sets a cock-eyed scheme in motion to gather up his old musician friends (who are now working as ambulance drivers, clerks, and doing voiceovers for porno films) during the next two weeks and fly to Paris to perform.

Who cares if they haven't played together in years?

First, Andre has to win the help of his former arch enemy, ex-KGB agent Ivan Gavrilov (Valeri Barinov) who remains a devoted, old school Communist. Back in the old days, Gavrilov was a tough negotiator for the Bolshoi orchestra, one of the best managers on the European classical music scene. He frequently dealt with Duplessis and would now do anything for a trip to his favorite Parisian restaurant (which, unknown to him, has since become a Turkish establishment with belly dancers as entertainers).

What follows is a rowdy farce as Andrei, his big bear of an accomplice Sacha (Dimitry Nazarov),and their old musical colleagues travel from Moscow to Paris. What sets The Concert above so many other films of its genre is the deep secret that motivates Andrei to get to Paris so he can work with the beautiful, young, and world-famous violinist, Anne-Marie Jacquet (Mélanie Laurent).

Mélanie Laurent as violinist  Anne-Marie Jacquet in The Concert
Using techniques best kept secret by gypsies and hustlers who traffic in Russia's black market, passports are obtained, a contract is negotiated, and a bunch of drunk musicians arrive in Paris.Once in France, Andrei must split his attention between Duplessis, Jacquet, and Anne-Marie's life-long friend, Guylène de la Rivière  (Miou-Miou), who raised her since childhood.

While much of The Concert is constructed as a romp and frolic, there is a very serious back story to Mihaileanu's movie. Classical music fans will happily overlook some clumsy plot points and wild goose chases as they enjoy the film's score.

Mélanie Laurent is enchanting as Anne-Marie. Aleksei Guskov, Dimitry Nazarov, and Miou-Miou all conspire to keep the young violinist's true identity a secret until the very end of the story.

The bottom line? Whether or not you buy into the filmmaker's emotional manipulation and comic shenanigans -- The Concert is chock full of demeaning stereotypes of conniving gypsies, greedy Jews, drunken Russians, French snobs, and bungling party bureaucrats -- the real star of the show is Tchaikovsky's violin concerto in D major,. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll hear some great music. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * * *

While it might be difficult to imagine a clumsier ensemble than Filipov's rag-tag orchestra in The Concert, one need look no further than the final moments of Meredith Willson's 1957 hit show, The Music Man, for a band that can only play their instruments using Professor Harold Hill's famous "think method."

Gracie Shinn (Emma Moorhead), Mayor Shinn (Greg Carlson) and his wife,
Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (Sandi Weldon). (Photo by: Kathy Kahn)

Woodminster Summer Musicals recently staged The Music Man in an outdoor production directed by Joel Schlader and choreographed by Harriet Schlader. I'm happy to report that the show has not lost an ounce of its charm. For a glorious glimpse of old-fashioned Americana, the only thing that can beat Willson's musical is a trip to the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.

I was lucky enough to have seen the original production of The Music Man (starring Robert Preston, Barbara Cook, Hermione Gingold, and the great Paul Ford) when I was about 11 years old. Hearing the full script again, some 52 years later, reveals some wonderful, long-forgotten laugh lines. References to long gone cultural landmarks such as Dan Patch, Captain Billy's Whiz Bang, corn cribs, cisterns, demijohns, knickerbockers, sen sen, dime novels, hogshead casks, horse sense, and tierces will fascinate history buffs.

Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (Sandi Weldon) gossips with her friends
(Photo by: Kathy Kahn)
Willson's powerful use of rhythm in the opening number ("Rock Island") and "Marian the Librarian" must have seemed revolutionary back in the 1950s. Nothing gets an audience's blood pumping faster than a hearty rendition of "76 Trombones," "The Wells Fargo Wagon," or "Shipoopi." Even so, the lyrical beauty of numbers like 'Lida Rose," "My White Knight," and "Till There Was You" can make a musical theater buff tear up quite easily.

Harold Hill (Bob Moorhead) and Marcellus (Carlos Lopez)
 in The Music Man (Photo by: Kathy Kahn)

Bob Moorhead was on solid footing as the silver-tongued Professor Harold Hill, with Carlos Lopez an ingratiating Marcellus Washburn. As Marion Paroo, Susan Himes-Powers once again demonstrated the powerful beauty of a well-placed lyric soprano.

Marian Paroo (Susan Himes Powers) and Professor Harold Hill (Bob Moorhead)
The Music Man (Photo by: Kathy Kahn)

Woodminster's cast featured Gregg Carlson as Mayor Shinn, Elliott Carr as young Winthrop Paroo, Marie Shell as Mrs. Paroo, and Sandi Weldon's hilarious portrayal of Eulalie MacKecknie Shinn. Todd Schlader was a handsome Tommy Djilas. 

As Charlie Cowell, Tom Murphy was the epitome of a traveling anvil salesman. The only disappointment was a surprisingly weak performance by the show's barbershop quartet (Randy Burke, Glenn Barley, David Flack, and Jim Coniglio).

The wonderful thing about the final scene of The Music Man is that, when River City's children finally arrive onstage in their band uniforms, resistance is futile. Tears of joy ran down my cheeks as I thrilled to the moment one more time.

One can't help but admire Meredith Willson's solid craft as a composer and his theatrical instinct as a playwright.

1 comment:

孫邦柔 said...